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Monotasking: The Forgotten Skill You (and I) Need to Re-Claim, ASAP

photo by Ryan Ritchie [1]
photo by Ryan Ritchie

This isn’t an easy post to write, because I’ll need to admit to something that’s a little embarrassing. Lately, at times, it’s been difficult for me to read. Yep, read. Not because I’ve forgotten how or because I lack the desire to do so, but because my mind leaps to Else as soon as I begin reading anything lengthier than a Twitter or Facebook post, which, of course, includes novels.

Not good.

Just focus, I tell myself. And I do for a few graphs, and then I’m gone again, chasing a stray thought set off by something I’ve just read or imagined with some un-still part of my mind.

Is it ADD? I suspect not, as I can focus on other things and this seems a relatively new problem for me.

So what’s going on?

A 21st Century Problem

I had an interesting conversation with a friend last week. Let me preface this tale by saying my friend is a brilliant programmer who works at Microsoft. As we chatted with our group over dinner, he admitted that he’s recently had trouble focusing on long texts, including books. There are a few caveats. He can focus on audiobooks. (Same here.) And he focuses best when in an environment that’s somewhat noisy and bustling–like a Starbucks. (Likewise, I focus best while wearing headphones and listening to a background-noise app.)

We talked about how we both felt plagued by this weird new thing, and then it hit me. “We’ve become–had to become–professional multitaskers, and it’s almost as if we’ve retrained our brains,” I said. “Now we can’t focus for any length of time on one thing even when that’s our choice.”

He agreed. We respond to emails while on the phone. We look over our RSS Feeds while brushing our teeth. We make coffee with one hand while scrolling through our Twitter feed(s) with the other. We have eleven windows open at once online, for two or three or four projects. Often we have not only one screen before us, but two–phone and computer, phone and television, computer and iPad. And even when we are physically doing just one thing, our minds are often on something—or two, then three somethings—completely different. Because brains are adaptable, and this is what they’ve been taught, this is how we’ve programmed them to behave.

Our minds have become fragmented because we are living fragmented lives.

The Truth of the Fallacy

That conversation with my friend inspired me into research mode. What caused this thing that was happening to us? Was it common? And—most importantly—what might be done about it?

I’d heard that multitasking is a fallacy [2]—that when we think we’re doing two things at once, we’re usually only doing one and not as well as we might believe–so I wasn’t surprised by the evidence found in support of that idea. But one study seemed particularly pertinent because, as mentioned, my friend works at Microsoft:

A classic 2007 study [3] of Microsoft workers found that when they responded to email or instant messaging alerts, it took them, on average, nearly 10 minutes to deal with their inboxes or messages, and another 10-15 minutes to really get back into their original tasks. That means that a mere three distractions per hour can preclude you from getting anything else done.

Anyone else think three distractions per hour sounds like an easy hour? Anyone else look back on their day and often feel they have nothing to show for it? Anyone else think this might explain the monumental sense of accomplishment that follows when checking one thing off their to-do list?

Buckle up, because that’s just the first bump in DeludedtoDistractionville.

While reading, I noticed one finding repeatedly referenced–research out of the Institute of Psychiatry at the University of London. From the Chicago Tribune [4]:

“Researchers studied…workers at Hewlett-Packard and found that multitasking with electronic media caused a greater decrease in IQ than smoking pot or losing a night’s sleep.”

Lost IQ points. Great. I don’t know about you, but I need every point I have.

BeFunky_Underpainting_242.jpg

I dug a little more. Learned that the Hewlett-Packard study was never peer-reviewed, had a small subject group, and was widely misrepresented by the press. I was ready to happily reject the multitasking-kills-your-brain theory.

And then I found this.

A much larger study, published just a few months ago in an international, peer-reviewed online journal called PLOS ONE, [5] found a significant negative correlation between media-multitasking and brain density in one part of the brain–the anterior cingulate cortex [6], which is involved with impulse control, reward anticipation, and decision-making. What does that mean? A negative correlation means higher amounts of one variable (e.g. minutes of multitasking behavior) are strongly linked with lower amounts of another (e.g. brain density). Significant means the findings are unlikely to be explained by chance. Correlational studies [7] like this don’t prove that one variable’s changes cause the other’s, by the way, but they’re important in the same way circumstantial evidence is important to a detective; following their trail can lead to stronger, causal evidence.

Back when I worked for Prevention magazine, there was a touchstone phrase we considered before deciding to print advice: Can’t hurt, might help. Vitamin B6 might alleviate your carpal tunnel pain, though doctors don’t entirely understand why. Can’t hurt, might help for you to try a vitamin B supplement, to see if you feel better. And while we can’t know yet the exact relationship between multitasking and reduced brain matter–if (a) multitasking makes for smaller brains, or (b) if small-minded people tend to multitask, or (c) if the research was flawed–we can ask questions, and we can act in a can’t hurt, might help way.

And I say why they hell not.

If multitasking does lead to anemic brain matter, what happens when you stop multitasking? What happens if you begin monotasking? Can you regain your lost grey matter, and become more productive–which suddenly feels like the least we have to worry about?

Is it too late, if the damage is done, to come back?

 

From Forbes [8] magazine, “Recent studies show that if you can change the way you think, you can change the wiring in your brain to improve its function and health.”

Awesome. But how?

In a fit of not-remotely-ADD-like behavior, I gathered about twenty pages of notes on the subject. Learned about Attention Restoration Theory and the impact of dopamine and addiction in this equation, and why some forms of multitasking seem to be “safe” while others are not. Had a meditation revelation. Considered Stephen Covey’s time management strategies. Nodded my way though theories on bottom-up and top-down processing. Constructed a theory of my own.

And something happened while I did all of this, when I approached the problem from a new and broader point of view. My multitasking lessened. I felt more centered. I read a novel.

I added enlightenment to my growing list of potential strategies for combating a fragmented mind.

So in the spirit of enlightenment, and if there’s interest here in WUville, I’d like to write a series of posts about this subject–interview some experts, keep digging. See if I can find the location of that Lost & Found box–the one with the IQ points.

But first, some questions for you:

Are you plagued with an unsettleable mind? What is your experience? How long can you focus before you drift? What, if anything, helps you to stay on point?

If you’re a multitasker, which of these three statements do you identify with the most?

* I multitask because I’m good at it.
* I multitask because I can’t seem to shut it down.
* I multitask because I would be snowed under–Juno-style–if I didn’t do more than one thing at a time.

If none of this feels like it applies to you, feel free to comment about that too. What’s important for WU purposes is to get a sense of the pervasiveness of this situation so I know if this is a worthy topic to pursue.

Over to you.

NEXT IN SERIES:

SNAKES ON A BRAIN [9]

About Therese Walsh [10]

Therese Walsh co-founded WU in 2006 and is the site's editorial director. She was the architect and 1st editor of WU's only book, Author in Progress [11], and orchestrates the WU UnConference. [12] Her second novel, The Moon Sisters [13], was named one of the best books of the year by Library Journal and Book Riot; and her debut, The Last Will of Moira Leahy [14] was a Target Breakout Book. Sign up for her newsletter [15] to be among the first to learn about her new projects (or follow her on BookBub [16]). Learn more on her website [17].

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